A micro-memoir in the style of Beth Ann Fennelly, written by Susan Thornton Hobby, Executive Producer of the Writing Life
Beth Ann Fennelly showed up at the Blackbird Poetry Festival last week in a skirt printed with rows of books of many colors, lime-green and fuchsia shoes, a brown sweater dotted with green flowers and a vintage chartreuse Canada Dry T-shirt that I coveted. Fennelly, who was at the festival to give a workshop, and give two readings, is the author, most recently, of Heating and Cooling: 52 micro-memoirs.
Anyone looking at both of us together could tell immediately who the poet was – I was in a white T-shirt, black pants and gray jacket. I did put on my red shoes, but other than that, I was as neutral as Switzerland.
Danielle Maloney, television director extraordinaire of The Writing Life, explained that because we use a green screen with a computer-generated set when taping the show, Fennelly’s torso would disappear – literally melt into the electronic background.
Fennelly would be not the headless horseman but the torso-less poet. She and I locked eyes. Then we both looked at my chest. The white T-shirt.
As she later told the audience at the Nightbird reading, “my host gave me the shirt off her back.”
But in the television studio, Beth Ann moaned, “I need color,” gazing forlornly at my boring shirt.
HoCoPoLitSo’s managing director Pam Simonson, the ultimate problem-solver, donated her butter-yellow jacket, which matched a few books on the skirt, and Beth Ann had a new outfit. I wore a Dragon Digital Television polo that the director found in a box in her office.
After a deep and hilarious thirty-minute conversation on The Writing Life, lead by poet Teri Ellen Cross Davis, Fennelly and I rushed to the car so she could grab some dinner and change before the evening reading. I was carrying books, a few remaining cookies from the dozen I baked to fuel the student camera operators, my jacket, Pam’s jacket, and the white T-shirt.
After I had dropped Fennelly at her hotel, I wanted to change back into my white shirt for the reading. I searched my car’s back seat, front seat, floorboards. It was gone.
I realized I must have dropped it. No time to find another shirt – I just threw my jacket on top of my black Dragon Digital polo and picked up the poet to reach the reading on time.
Just as we were turning into the parking garage, I told Beth Ann I needed to go search the hallways of Howard Community College for my T-shirt. And then then headlights hit it – a crumpled puddle of white on the parking garage floor.
“I’ll get it!” Beth Ann shrieked, and jumped out, the rhinestones on her vintage dress flashing in the headlights as she triumphantly held the shirt over her head. The shirt was criss-crossed with tire tracks. It smelled of damp cement, Michelin radials, and Beth Ann Fennelly.
I’ll never wash it.
blog post by Susan Thornton Hobby
An open and shut case at Blackbird Poetry workshop…
Only Beth Ann Fennelly could urge more than 150 people gathered for a writing workshop during the Blackbird Poetry Festival to stick their fingers in their mouths and repeat: “Bet, butt, bet, butt, bet, butt,” until they had figured out how their tongues were making the words.
It also could have been the threat of interpretive dance (their own, if they did not participate).
Either way, Fennelly clearly illustrated her point – the shape of our mouths influences the connotations certain sounds retain, in languages around the world. And therefore, the sounds bring meaning to poetry.
Here’s her quiz.
Carl Sandberg wrote: “The voice of the last cricket/ across the first frost/ is one kind of goodbye.”
The next line, Fennelly asked, is it “so thin a splinter, so meager a morsel or so small an atom?” “Thin a splinter,” someone called from the back of the room. “Yes,” Fennelly said. “That short ‘i’ sound – the sound of small, a vulnerable feeling. “
Poets use sound to make meaning with words that suggest meanings, through their brevity or length of sound (“pup” and “bark” are the same number of syllables, but they take longer to say), the pleasure or discomfort of the sounds in our mouths (“melodious” versus “sticky”), and by setting up and displacing a metrical scheme.
“I’m hedonistic about feeling the sound of words, there’s a pleasure of sound,” Fennelly told the group.
She lead them through poems by Robert Herrick (“melting, melodious words to lutes of amber,” and by Robert Frost, (“The Span of Life” – “the saddest poem in the English language,” Fennelly said.) She talked about how sounds of words can move the poem faster or slower, how a change in sound and rhyme and rhythm can surprise the reader in a good or unpleasant way.
By the end of the workshop, Fennelly gave dark chocolate bars to the students who scored the best on the quiz that tested their ear for poetry’s sounds. Because it was all about the mouth.
P.S. A week after her visit to Columbia, Fennelly was awarded The Excellence in Graduate Teaching & Mentoring Award by the University of Mississippi where she teaches.
[a guest blog by poet Linda Dove written for HoCoPoLitSo]
Stanley Plumly died on April 11, 2019, in the most poetic month of the year. He was a poet’s poet and a teacher’s teacher. He authored ten volumes of poetry and four works of nonfiction, several of them award-winners, including a finalist for the National Book Award. He read for HoCoPoLitSo audiences twice – once in 1988 and once in 2010, and served as the Poet Laureate for the state of Maryland for most of the past decade. Since 1985, Plumly taught at the University of Maryland College Park, where he founded the MFA program and mentored students in poetics for more than 30 years.
In the fall of 1990, I took a poetry workshop with him at UMCP, where I was—at the time—pursuing a master’s degree in American literature. I was not a poet—instead, I was training to be a scholar of other people’s poetry. But I knew the chance to study with Stan Plumly was not something you passed up, and I, somewhat timidly, filed into the light-filled room every week. It would be years before I would produce a poem that I’d consider good enough to submit to a journal, but I soaked in the lessons nonetheless. For instance, when Stan praised a poem written by a classmate that was an ode to a woman’s areola, it reinforced for me that nothing was off-limits in poetry. Nightingales and Grecian urns might seem more the stuff of poetry, but they were only one means to one end—although, as odes go, those of John Keats were a pretty good bet for what Stan might consider great writing.
In fact, last week, a new poem by the young, celebrated poet Kaveh Akbar, “The Palace,” appeared in The New Yorker and made its lightning-fast rounds on Twitter. When I read the poem, I had the immediate thought, I wonder what Stan Plumly would say about this?, as Akbar imagines the voice of Keats into being (“Hello, this is Keats speaking”). Keats was Stan’s self-described poet-hero, a figure he wrote about extensively in prose, including in his much-praised book, Posthumous Keats:
Keats’s best-known doctrine, Negative Capability, implies an engagement in the actual through imaginative identification that is simultaneously a kind of transcendence. The artist loses the Selfhood that demands a single perspective or “meaning,” identifies with the experience of his/her object, and lets that experience speak itself through him/her. Both the conscious soul and the world are transformed by a dynamic openness to each other.
What’s striking about Stan’s interpretation of the famous Keatsian concept here is his focus on humility—“The artist loses the Selfhood”—that also happened to define Stan as a person. He was warm and generous and down-to-earth, even as he was revered. As one of my fellow graduate students, Renée Curry, recently remembered, “Stan was always ‘present.’ As a teacher, he made us look at the deepest meanings of words, at how they could create fire in a poem. As a reader of our poems, he was always kind, yet firm in what our creations needed in order to grow. . . I am so happy to have spent five years as his student.”
Yet, despite how very human he was, he also commanded the spaces he moved through. As another one of Stan’s students, Valerie Macys, commented, “the room shook just a bit whenever he walked inside.” In fact, she reminded those of us who gathered on Facebook to mourn his passing of how charismatic he was, how he had that special sort of aura about him, despite his modest mannerisms: “do you remember his cowboy boots and his jean jacket? He used to come into the building like he rode in on a stallion.” Or her memory of yet another graduate student, Tim Skeen, on his way to meet Stan in his office hours, who remarked, “‘It’s time to prostrate myself before the Oracle’.” Stan Plumly was larger than life, even as he was unassuming. To paraphrase his own poem, “Wight”—he embodied the verb “to be”:
Is is the verb of being, I the noun—
or pronoun for the purists of being.
I was, I am, I looked within and saw
nothing very clearly: purest being.
Of course, most of Stan’s oracular charm existed because of the poetry itself. The words “amazing,” “stunning,” full of “wonder,” “extraordinary,” and “genius” are all superlatives I’ve seen other poets apply to his work in the wake of his death. He made my own poems more responsive to that finer layer of the world, the one you notice only if you’re not taking it for granted. He shared that observant posture with the British Romantic poets he so loved, as well as an attention to a life lived through emotion. Writing about that all-too-common subject of heartbreak, Stan makes it sing:
Love, too, a leveler, a dying all its own,
the parts left behind not to be replaced,
a loss ongoing, and every day increased,
like rising in the night, at 3:00 am,
to watch the snow or the dead leaf fall,
the rings around the streetlight in the rain,
and then the rain, the red fist in the heart
opening and closing almost without me.
(from “Variation on a Line from Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘Five Flights Up’”)
Note the way that he makes the whole notion of lost love hinge on the word “almost.”
Poets are keenly aware that words outlive them. In Stan’s case, he left us with models of perfect pitch, imagery, and line. In “Ground Birds in Open Country,” he admits to letting the birds, the poems, go for us, anytime we might encounter his work in the future:
And in a hallway once,
a bird went mad, window by locked window,
the hollow echo length of a building.
I picked it up closed inside my hand.
I picked it up and tried to let it go.
They fly up so quickly in front of you,
without names, in the slurred shapes of wings.
Scatter as if shot from twelve-gauge guns.
Or they fly from room to room, from memory
past the future, having already gathered
in great numbers on the ground.
Another one of Stan’s students, Laura Dickinson, summed up his influence this way: “He made me a better poet. I can say nothing that is more significant about his impact on me than that,” to which Jeanne Griggs then added, “I think he also made me a better person, more conscious of things I’d overlooked before he insisted I look.” Truly, there can be no greater epitaph.
About the guest blogger:
Linda Dove grew up in Howard County and holds a Ph.D. in Renaissance literature from the University of Maryland. She teaches college writing and is an award-winning poet; her books include In Defense of Objects (2009), O Dear Deer, (2011), This Too (2017), Fearn (2019), and the scholarly collection of essays, Women, Writing, and the Reproduction of Culture in Tudor and Stuart Britain (2000). She lives with her human family, two Jack Russell terriers, and three backyard chickens in the foothills east of Los Angeles, where she serves as the faculty editor of MORIA Literary Magazine at Woodbury University.
A guest blog by Faye McCray
When I first started teaching writing workshops with kids, it was for selfish reasons. I was in a place of transition in my career and that meant a great deal of obnoxious self-reflection about what made me truly happy. I knew it wasn’t my day job and when I pictured myself happy, I kept conjuring up the same image: Kid-me, twelve-ish, sitting in front of my sixth grade classmates reading my work for the first time. To be clear, I didn’t want to actually be twelve again. God, no. There were braces and glasses and bad relaxers. However, I did want that feeling. The feeling of being surrounded by folks ready to listen and be heard.
As a child, I was a voracious reader. My favorite work was fiction that took place in worlds completely different from mine. In retrospect, I don’t know if that was my curiosity or just the fact that worlds that looked like mine didn’t really exist in the nineties literary landscape. Either way, for me, reading was like getting to try on another person’s soul. It was the ability to see, feel and taste what life was like in a way completely different from my own. I could go from my reality: being a girl with box braids and a beef patty on a subway in Queens to a young woman on vacation in Monte Carlo who meets and marries a man who, unbeknownst to her, murdered his first wife.
When my sixth grade teacher decided to task us with writing original work to share with our classmates, it was as if I was going to finally see them and they would finally see me. Truth be told, I was probably the most excited kid in class. However, the seed was planted. I was a writer, and I bet if I looked hard enough, there were other kids who thought they were writers too.
On March 22, I had the pleasure of hosting the Columbia Art Center’s first Teen Open Mic. The theme was “Choose Civility”, HoCo’s most known slogan which in the current social and political climate, could mean a great many things. I was so nervous leading up to the event. I knew how much a Teen Open Mic would have meant to me. I also wondered if the idea was antiquated. After all, isn’t social media one big open mic with the added benefit of anonymity?
As teens trickled into the Art Center, however, I could see the same excited anticipation I had felt over twenty years ago written all over their faces. Naturally, there were nerves but armed with their words on their phones or on sheets of paper in their hands, they were ready. Their powerful work ranged in topic from mental health to self-acceptance to race to the environment. I was moved – not only by the incredible work itself but how beautifully it was received. The crowd was modest but as I said to the young writers that evening, I preferred it that way.
By the end of the night, as we wandered around the beautiful art center and munched on the remaining snacks, the mood felt light. The teens, who had arrived as strangers, now shared praise and encouragement, promising to “see each other next time.” Their enthusiasm was infectious. I realized that although I was decades away from making that discovery in my own sixth grade classroom, I was invested in making similar experiences a possibility for other pre-teens and teens. We all have a desire to be heard. More importantly, we all have a valuable story to tell.
About the blogger:
Faye McCray is an author and essayist whose popular essays on love, life and parenting have been featured in the Huffington Post, My Brown Baby, For Harriet, Madame Noire and other popular publications. She is the Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder of Weemagine, a website devoted to celebrating and inspiring all children and the people who love them. Faye is also the author of Dani’s Belts, a collection of horror short stories, Boyfriend, a full length novel about a troubled college student struggling with love and fidelity, and I am Loved! a collection of positive affirmations for kids. Find out more about Faye on her website: http://www.fayemccray.com/
Poetry scares people.
Poets Laureate? That sounds like they should be wearing circles of laurel leaves on their heads and reciting from hilltops. Super scary.
The new Maryland Poet Laureate is the opposite of that image, though I would highly condone granting her a laurel leaf crown. Grace Cavalieri is more poetry’s grandma, albeit one who wears a leather motorcycle jacket and writes collections of poetry about Anna Nicole Smith.
“She is not a gatekeeper, but one who opens the gate and says, ‘Come in, you are welcome here,’ ” said poet Teri Ellen Cross Davis, head of the Poet Laureate Selection Committee, who introduced Cavalieri on the last day of February at her induction party in Annapolis. (And will offer a workshop and read with Beth Ann Fennelly at this year’s Blackbird Poetry Festival.)
After Davis and other dignitaries finished praising her, Cavalieri beamed at the audience, including her four daughters sitting in the front row. She explained that at their family home, “Poetry has always sat at the table.”
For more than forty years, Cavalieri has hosted “The Poet and the Poem,” an interview show on public radio, now carried by the Library of Congress. She’s written more than 20 books and chapbooks of poetry, had 26 plays produced on the American stage, and won honors like the Pen-Fiction Award, the Allen Ginsberg Poetry Award, and the inaugural Columbia Merit Award from Folger Shakespeare Library.
Those awards sound off-putting, but Grace’s speech to the gathered crowd of past Maryland Poets Laureate, friends, former students at Columbia’s 1960s experimental Antioch College, fellow poets, and Italian cousins wasn’t.
“Here’s what poetry does. It slows us down,” Cavalieri said. “Poetry is a shelter, a haven, it’s dreaming on a page. Poetry keeps us from being lonely. It’s a bridge. It makes us more human.”
“Through writing, they find out who they are. Poetry is self-discovery. You find out where you’ve been and where you’re going,” she said. “I didn’t know who I was until I was 80, now I’m enjoying it very much.”
And after the laughter and applause died down, Cavalieri read one of her signature poems, about her grandparents’ Italian restaurant in Trenton, NJ. The poem’s topic? Something everyone loves – besides Grace – pizza.
Cavalieri came to HoCoPoLitSo’s very first event, on Nov. 19, 1974, with poets Carolyn Kizer and Lucille Clifton. And she started reading her work and teaching workshops with us in 1980, and was our poet-in-residence to the county schools in the 2002 to 2003 academic year. The students and teachers loved her for her energy and enthusiasm, which has not flagged a bit since then.
Cavalieri hasn’t stopped writing because she has this new laurel. Here’s her latest poem, about her latest job:
Terms of Office
for Lawrence J. Hogan, Jr. January 16, 2019
May our Governor hear the language of the people
as terms of his office.
“Language” simply means many people
Have come together to make words.
There are nearly 100,000 words in the English language
I’ve chosen exactly 246, but I want to shine them up
To speak about a man serving in high office;
A man who will walk by the beautiful waters
Of our bays, rivers, rivulets;
One who continues with inner strength
Clearing new paths with elasticity for every kind among us—
Who knows love and hope are not holiday greetings
But governing principles—
A man aspirational for humanity.
Language always leads us to the soul of each matter,
And today it rinses words clean, renewing meaning:
Independence of thought
An honorable nature
Calm in the eye of national storms.
From the rich bottom lands of southern Maryland
To the forested hills of our western state—
From the dynamic energy of northern Maryland
To his own hometown—
May our Governor’s inner spirit seek compassion before action,
May his wisdom see that the heart’s choice dictates the mind’s decisions,
May he be rewarded with radiant pride for his integrity.
In speaking of success, Ralph Waldo Emerson said:
“Each one has an aptitude to do easily some feat impossible to any other
And to do otherwise undermines the talents of all others.”
May Governor Hogan be rewarded with radiant pride for his integrity.
Maryland Poet Laureate
Susan Thornton Hobby
HoCoPoLitSo recording secretary
Register online or by calling 410-313-1950.
Susan Thornton Hobby
By Laura Yoo
A popular image of book clubs is that it’s an “excuse” for women to get together to drink wine. Of course, there is nothing wrong with that. But my book club, which I joined two years ago, is actually a book club. The 14 member group is super organized, and we actually read the books that we choose as a group (done very democratically). There is wine and a good amount of talking politics, but overall it is a reading club. There is always robust literary discourse.
Book clubs and the battle of the sexes
Pew Research reports that 11% of Americans are involved in some kind of a reading circle or a book club. But in general book clubs are seen as something women do. Men have poker nights. Women have book clubs.
It turns out that it actually has a historical beginning as a female activity. Audra Otto, writing for MinnPost, reports 1634 as the first known instance of an organized reading group in (or on the way to) America:
On a ship headed for the Massachusetts Bay Colony, religious renegade Anne Hutchinson organizes a female discussion group to examine sermons given at weekly services. Eventually condemned by the Bay Colony’s general assembly, the gatherings inaugurated a tradition of women’s analytical discussion of serious texts.
The banning of this organization signals that a gathering of women to share ideas was seen as dangerous or maybe even evil. But, women continued to organize elsewhere. Hannah Adams formed a reading circle in the late 1760s and Hannah Mathers Crocker in 1778. Adams’ and Crocker’s reading circles are revolutionary in that they created opportunities for women to form communities of intellectual development when women couldn’t go to school or college.
Another example of such revolutionary gatherings is the Friends in Council formed by Sarah Atwater Denman, the oldest continuous women’s literary club in America.
In November of 1866, Denman invited 11 ladies to her home to create a study plan. She wanted each member of her book club to develop a philosophical point of view for herself, and a study plan was an excellent place to begin. Over time, Friends in Council consumed great works of history and philosophy, spending two years on Plato alone.
So, historically speaking, the book club has been a female act of subversion.
Book clubs in the 21st century
A 2016 The New York Times article caused some stir when it profiled The Man Book Club, the International Ultra Manly Book Club, and the NYC Gay Guys’ Book Club. The article mentioned that the The Man Book Club in California has a “No books by women about women” rule. This and other details about these men’s book clubs suggested chauvinism and sexism. The backlash was so strong that The Man Book Club issued An Apologia on their website, in which they explain how they arrived at their group name (think the Man Booker Prize) and how they select their books (which does include books by women). It seems that because book clubs are pegged as “female” activity, these men hyper-emphasize the “man” part of their book club. While many criticized these men clubs, others like Slate’s L.V. Anderson came to their defense, saying,
We shouldn’t see all-male book clubs as a reactionary backlash against female book clubs, or an attempt to co-opt a traditionally female space, but as a way for men to enjoy the social and intellectual benefits of book clubs without destroying the homosocial camaraderie of all-female book clubs.
Today, book clubs go beyond groups of friends getting together to read and chat. Websites like Meetup.com and other social media tools help us organize or join groups with strangers. The NYC Gay Guy’s Book Club, for instance, has 120 members on Meetup.com and anywhere between 10 to 60 members show up for a meeting at a public library. The search results for book clubs in my area include The Girly Book Club of Baltimore, Intersectional LGBTQ+ Allies Book Club for Women of DMV, and the Silent Reading Club (of Rockville). I am particularly loving this idea of gathering in a group to read silently.
Recently, I was invited to attend another friend’s book club gathering to talk about Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming. This was a much smaller group – there were only four of us that night. We got comfy on the couch, drank wine, talked about the book a little, then talked mostly about our families, our kids, education and schools, about how we grew up, and even some politics. It was a lovely evening.
Book clubs are not about the books (only)
I think we can see that the book club is not always (only) about books. For many, the book club is a way to see friends and form meaningful bonds, as both the Man Book Club and the International Ultra Manly Book Club report. For others, the book club is a way to meet new people. As Jon Tomlinson, founder of the NYC Gay Guys’ Book Club says, “People come to connect, to find their place in a new city, to fall in love.”
For Scarlett Cayford, the book club was a way to meet people when she moved to London – four years later, she was still going to the same book club. As Cayford says, book clubs are not about books – they are “about bonding, and they’re about conversation, and they’re about sharing secrets. I can’t speak for all, of course, but the book clubs I‘ve attended usually end up involving about 30 minutes of intense book discussion […] and nigh on three hours on the subject of different sexual proclivities.”
Well, my book club does not discuss sexual proclivities. Nonetheless, I look forward to my monthly book club gatherings for two reasons. First is that I have time built into my schedule to see my friends. We take turns hosting at our homes and facilitating the discussion. I enjoy the company of these women who are my colleagues, mentors, and friends – and I cherish the opportunities to see them regularly.
The second is that the book club makes me read. Sometimes – like my students – I cram my reading just a few days before the gathering. Recently, I’ve had to admit to myself that I watch more than I read. I’m much more likely to pick up my tablet or turn the TV on to binge-watch something deliciously useless. After a long day at work and shuttling the kids around, it’s a relief to change into pajamas and cozy up in my “reading chair” to watch the outrageously handsome Hyun Bin in a Korean drama or ass-kicking Keri Russell in The Americans. I used to actually read in that reading chair. After a long day at work and shuttling kids around, it was a relief to get lost in a good book. But the ease of accessing television shows on mobile devices is oh-so-tempting. So, my book club is my antidote to binge-watching.
This month, our book club is reading Word by Word by Kory Stamper. I am not sure what my book club members are feeling about it – we haven’t met yet – but I am loving every page of this book. I am a word-nerd, and I am savoring the juicy details of how the dictionary is written and how we may be in the middle of a seismic shift in the meaning of “of” (as suggested by the newfangled phrase “bored of” as opposed to “bored from” and “bored with”). I’m giddy about exchanging tweets with Stamper about her use of the word “goddamned” which I found amusing. I’m enjoying the book, for sure. But I’m REALLY going to enjoy talking about it with my friends this week.
I don’t know about subversion and rebellion and all that, but I know I enjoy the company of my friends, books, and wine – that’s a powerful combination.
Save the Date! HoCoPoLitSo is sponsoring a book club of cli-fi, climate fiction, at the Miller Library, one book each season. The first book, Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood, will be discussed April 4, 7 to 8 p.m. Discussion will be led by Susan Thornton Hobby, a consultant to HoCoPoLitSo, and Julie Dunlap, a writer and environmental educator. More details to come!
Before the Columbia Festival of the Arts box office even opened in 1996, tickets for the reading by Mary Oliver were long sold out.
Word had spread like wildfire about her appearance, and the famous Oliver, a quiet soul who didn’t travel much from her home in Massachusetts, read once, and only once, for HoCoPoLitSo. We tried for years to lure her back, but failed. Oliver died January 17, 2019, from lymphoma.
Before that June day in 1996, ninety writers sent in poems for a workshop, which Oliver conducted in the Slayton House dance studio. If you were one of those poets, we want to hear what Oliver said about your work. We hope you kept her notes.
After the workshop, Oliver packed Slayton House’s auditorium with 250 people. The late Lucille Clifton, another poet who is now no longer with us, introduced Oliver, the Pulitzer winner, this way, “To call her a nature poet is like calling Pavarotti a singer.”
Afterwards, Oliver, who is “reclusive, but not shy,” says HoCoPoLitSo founder Ellen Kennedy, chatted over chicken salad and fruit kebabs at the Kennedy home.
“I am trying in my poems to vanish and have the reader be the experiencer. I do not want to be there. It is not even a walk we take together,” Oliver explained about her work.
She’s become an Instagrammable poet, an inspirational poet. She asked her readers, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do/ with your one wild and precious life?” (link to “The Summer Day”)
But her work reaches people because it’s authentic, it’s true. Above all, she is a masterful poet.
Her images – of the grasshopper’s jaws moving sideways to mouth the sugar that Oliver fed her, of the lights going out behind her as journeys away from her home, of the wild geese streaking the sky – remain with me. I am always hoping that I can live like she did, “from day to day from/ one golden page to another.” (link to “Forty Years”)
by Susan Thornton Hobby
HCPLS Recording secretary
Tara Hart is a Co-Chair of HoCoPoLitSo, and she is known for her beautiful introductions to the guest authors that we host. Below is her introduction to Michael Collier, Elizabeth Spirs, and David Yezzi. These authors read at the Lucille Clifton Reading Series on October 26, 2018 at Howard Community College’s Monteabaro Recital Hall. The introduction has been edited for the blog.
HoCoPoLitSo’s autumn reading series is named for Lucille Clifton, our late artistic advisor, distinguished master poet, and dear friend. We seek to craft a fall event each year that honors the caliber of her poetry and contributions to poetry, but also honors her spirit of connection, inquiry, and social justice, and her love for life and learning. She always let us know if HoCoPoLitSo was up to the mark and we know we would have had her fullest approval and blessing for the season opening event with three master poets Michael Collier, Elizabeth Spires, and David Yezzi.
These poets each have quite distinctive rhythms, tones, and subjects. But when I read their work in proximity to each other, fascinating connections emerge and start to tell a compelling story of the wonder of ordinary experience. When I say “wonder,” I do not mean it is all wonderful. But there is wonder in how many shades a life can hold, how many complexities and contradictions and paradoxes, and yes, how much darkness can be present yet still allow for light. In the work of these poets, you see free verse, but also elegantly structured quatrains, villanelles, and sonnets; there are some explicit references to other contemporary poets but also to King Lear, Keats, Emily Dickinson. These poets include a lot of snow in their poems, a lot of birds and flowers, dreams and ghosts, but also Instagram, humblebrags, and hashtags, anxiety medication, soap operas, game shows, videogames, even Patrick Swayze. There are terrifyingly timely poems about being a 21st century man with terrifying impulses. About guns, plagues, and tragedies in daylight. About those who abuse others’ trust and those who enable abusers. About inadequate rulers, about resistance, about the need to “stay human” amidst the news, the smartphones, and the loneliness.
These poets help us understand both the timeless and contemporary purposes of poetry, this singing and where it might come from. Using some of their own words now, we can see how poetry is “Like the weather that is never one thing.” It might be about making “bright things from shadows.” Poems might be stacks of perfectly balanced rocks or cairns, with words like roaring shells you hold up to your ear that say neither yes nor no, but to which we listen. Poets might be beggars with empty bowls peddling “poems that were never ours though we wrote them”; poets might write from bruised places or from the “place where a night/bird sings.”
All three poets’ work is full of wings (birds, ghosts, leaves, moths, bees, oars) “drumming and drumming.” They drum of ordinary regrets: our missed turns, going away for too long, getting lost, doing things that can’t be undone. Our desires, our clutter. Our “wingless feet.” Our ordinary worries: about children, about loss, about dying. “The terror of all that could befall me, you.”
These poets show us the nature of inquiry: “here in this place, there are no names on the map. There is no map.” They ask “What does it mean to be alive?” Why is “happiness so fleet”? “What is our hate made of?” “What will be left when each thing goes?” “Is it enough? To rest in this moment? To turn our faces to the sun?”
Finally, in Elizabeth Spires’ poem “Starry Night,” she gives us faith that the light of artists keeps travelling like stars, never darkening, never dying. As we stumble, they still shine, so we should keep looking up to them, working wonders.
This essay originally appeared on Nerdy Book Club and has been reposted here for HoCoPoLitSo readers with the permission of the author and Nerdy Book Club. The original posting can be found here: https://nerdybookclub.wordpress.com/2018/11/15/a-long-way-to-go-on-gun-violence-by-laura-shovan/
We woke up on Thursday morning to news of another mass shooting in America, this time at a California bar. It was college night. As the mom of two college students, I was shaken once again. It had only been eleven days since Jews were gunned down in their Pittsburgh synagogue. Twelve since a man killed two people at a grocery store after he was unable enter a predominantly black church nearby.
Writers and publishers are producing a growing number of books for children and teens about gun violence. In This Is Where It Ends, by Marieke Nijkamp, readers witness a mass school shooting through the eyes of several narrators. Marisa Reichardt’s Underwater offers a thoughtful study of a school shooting survivor who suffers from PTSD. The Hate You Give, by Angie Thomas — in which a girl witnesses the police shooting her best friend, a black teen — is now a movie.
These are important books. Kids need these stories as they struggle to understand what we are all struggling with: gun violence is impacting their generation. But what they also need are books that carefully examine our culture’s relationship to violence.
Last weekend, a friend and I saw the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts’ production of Jason Reynold’s Long Way Down. The verse novel was adapted for the stage by Martine Kei Green-Rogers and directed by Timothy Douglas. The play follows the book’s plot: When his older brother Shawn is shot and killed, fifteen-year-old Will follows the rules handed down by the men in his family: “No crying. No snitching. Always seek revenge.” The story takes place as Will rides his building’s elevator – gun tucked into the back of his pants – down to the street, where he plans to shoot his brother’s killer. During that ride, the ghosts of past gun violence in Will’s life visit him, forcing him to look at how each loss has hardened him. He begins to question what he is about to do.
This production was, remarkably, a one-act, one-man show, with actor Justin Weaks playing not only Will, but also the people he has lost. That choice drives home an important point: Will carries each murdered friend and family member deep in his psyche. Each ghost’s visitation peels back a layer of Will’s armor, and we see him feeling emotions most boys are taught to hide: fear, grief, sadness. I won’t go into the wonders of the staging – how the coffin-like elevator was recreated, its mirrored walls reflecting the actor’s face as Will reflects on the people he’s lost.
I am still trying to piece together my reactions to Long Way Down after reading the book, experiencing this production, and interviewing Jason Reynolds for a local television series called “The Writing Life.” What sets this book apart is that act of peeling back layers of grief. Readers connect with Will’s first-person voice straight away. We are already rooting for him to make a different choice, even as we understand his in-the-moment decision to punish the person who took his brother’s life. However, as Reynolds introduces us to the ghosts, the reader or audience member begins to understand intergenerational violence and how traumatizing it is for children, especially children of color.
I was grateful that after the standing ovation, a facilitator was on hand to help people process what we had just witnessed. As audience members shared their stories – best friends, siblings lost to gun violence – I was in denial. “Gun violence hasn’t touched me directly,” I thought. But of course, it has. My friend was at our local mall in Columbia, Maryland, during a shooting in 2014. She sheltered in place in a cramped store-room for hours before the all-clear was given. On New Year’s Day, 2017, my neighbor’s fifteen-year-old daughter – my daughter’s friend – was shot and killed by a classmate who had stolen a gun and broken into their house.
Another act of violence in our community was one of the inspirations for my recent middle grade novel, Takedown. On a winter evening in 2007, an ongoing argument between two groups of teens escalated. They went to an empty high school parking lot for a rumble. One boy, a highly-ranked wrestler in the county, brought a bat. He killed another teen that night. I remember sitting down with my son, who was ten years old at the time and part of the county’s tight-knit wrestling community. As a family, we talked about the idea that at any point that evening, the teens involved could have made another choice and walked away from the fight. In Long Way Down, Will’s elevator ride is his moment to decide whether he is going to walk away and step out of the cycle of violence.
Although I decided to tone down the violent moment in my story of a middle school girl who joins an all-boys wrestling team, writing about a traditionally male combat sport gave me an opportunity to look at this issue. And this week, I am reminded that our society is paying the price for celebrating violence among boys and men, whether we actively teach them to seek revenge, or we subtly look the other way under the guise of “boys will be boys.”
Books like Long Way Down are necessary, because they can help us talk with children and teens about the cost of violence, and what it means to walk away.
Laura Shovan’s debut middle grade novel, The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary, won several awards, including NCTE 2017 Notable Verse Novel, Arnold Adoff Poetry Award for New Voices honor book, and a Nerdy Book Club award for poetry. Laura’s second children’s novel, Takedown, is a Junior Library Guild and PJ Library selection. Look for her next book, A Place at the Table, co-written with author/activist Saadia Faruqi, in 2020. Laura is a longtime poet-in-the-schools in her home state of Maryland.